Sometimes dining out fulfills one of our most basic needs: sating those (sometimes noisy) hunger pangs. But, on other occasions, eating out is the entertainment for the night. In that vein, these suburban spots top our restaurants that were worth the trip in 2016.
700 N. Milwaukee Ave., Suite 128, Vernon Hills, (847) 549-3620, blufishsushi.com/. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Reviewed by Jennifer Billock
The premise: As the newest location of popular Glenview and Park Ridge's Blufish sushi bistro, the Vernon Hills restaurant has a lot to live up to -- and it succeeds, both in the quality of food and the posh atmosphere. The interior design is striking, half organic nature-inspired and half downtown cocktail lounge. Fresh colors and chandeliers round out the visual experience.
Eats: Sushi dominates the mostly Japanese menu, with a secondary selection of kitchen entrees, noodle dishes, bento box specials for lunch and a few riffs on traditionally Korean meals, such as bibimbap and bulgogi beef. The food menu is paired with an extensive cocktail, sake and wine selection, along with both imported and domestic beers.
The bulgogi kimchee egg rolls and panko scallops appetizers are worth a try as was the bibimbap (spinach, carrots, mung bean sprouts, nori, shiitake, onion, zucchini and rice with an egg cracked on top). The perfectly cooked Chilean sea bass made quite an impression. And all of the sushi fish was incredibly tender and fresh. That was evident in the Black Dragon, California Sunset, Spicy Cajun and Golden Dragon rolls.
The bottom line: Aside from the food and atmosphere, the waitstaff is top-notch, offering insightful ingredient and pairing suggestions and working quickly to take care of anything diners need. Going to Blufish was more than just dinner -- it was a complete dining experience, paced well and lots of fun. It ranks high on the must-return list.
2000 W. Orchard Road, North Aurora, (630) 299-3977, eathardware.com/. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
Reviewed by Katherine Rodeghier
The premise: Cruise down Orchard Road in North Aurora and you'll spot a building that might be a set from a "Mad Max" movie plopped among farms fields and subdivisions. Opened in mid-2016, this gastro pub's purpose-built structure is made from industrial salvage with one wall of greenery to moderate temperatures inside and a greenhouse glowing in the dark on another. Inside, barrel staves form chandeliers, pocket doors salvaged from old homes line a wall and the foot rail on the bar comes from a section of railroad track.
Sustainability is key here: The restaurant grows its own produce in the greenhouse as well as fruit and nuts in the tiny orchard and garden on its 5.6-acre property. It uses water reclaimed from its roof for irrigation. Hardware also makes its own sausage and brews its own beer in an in-house BBGB Brewery.
A 1.5-acre hop farm next to the parking lot will produce most of the hops for its beer after the first harvest this coming year. The standout libation is whiskey, with nearly 400 varieties, more than any establishment outside Chicago.
Eats: The eclectic menu includes the memorable Spanish sausage salad, featuring house-made mildly spiced wood-grilled sausage. The baked goat cheese and roasted vegetable app are worth consideration, too. The selection of entrees is imaginative, if a bit gimmicky. The eye-catching Korean pork -- pan-seared pork belly with charred broccolini and pickled watermelon rind topped with a fried duck egg -- had just enough spice to make an impression without being overwhelming. The tender Wagyu steak, cooked medium-rare with crispy smashed Yukon potatoes, is the only entree that comes close to standard fare.
Whimsical desserts include ho ho's, an adult version of the snack cake filled with Maker's Mark whiskey cream.
The bottom line: Hardware hammers home the booze. Go for a few drinks with friends, order some salads, appetizers or a charcuterie board to share, maybe split one entree, but save room for dessert. Those ho ho's are darned cute.
29 S. Third St., Geneva, (630) 232-2280, allchocolatekitchenprimo.com/. Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Primo is 21 and older only. Reservations recommended.
Reviewed by Thomas Witom
The premise: Chocolatier and master pastry chef Alain Roby branched out earlier this year with this 25-seat upscale food and wine bar add-on to his five-year-old All Chocolate Kitchen in downtown Geneva. Envisioned as a destination spot where diners can create a meal from its artisanal cheeses, charcuterie offerings and chef plates, Primo is only open Wednesday through Saturday. Because space is limited, management recommends booking a table.
To get to Primo, guests must pass through All Chocolate Kitchen where they can marvel at Roby's eye-catching 23-foot-tall rig that pumps about 200 pounds of melted chocolate an hour.
Eats: Diners can pick and choose from among 10 domestic and international cheeses. The buttery semi-firm cheese from Ludwig Farmstead in Fithian, Illinois, is worth a try. From the assorted charcuterie, the liver pate from France proved a tasty nibble, nicely complemented by bite-sized cornichons. The short ribs entree, prepared in a red-wine sauce inspired by Roby's mother, was fork-tender and it paired well with the accompanying green lentils. Maman Suzanne's Smoked Salmon, served with a poached egg in a fresh-baked brioche, was another fine dish.
Desserts get special attention. You won't go wrong with the trio crème brûlée: classic, seasonal and grand cru chocolate. Other possibilities include a chocolate truffles flight, butterscotch cheesecake and Primo's drunken gelato (Stracciatella gelato with chocolate liquor).
The bottom line: Gourmet specialties in an intimate setting make Primo a go-to spot for any special occasion.
Punch Bowl Social
1100 American Lane, Schaumburg, (224) 836-9080, punchbowlsocial.com/location/schaumburg. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; and 9 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
Reviewed by Deborah Pankey
The premise: If you're looking for handcrafted cocktails and chef-driven pub fare with a side of vintage entertainment, then this Schaumburg spot fits the bill.
While the venue is quite open, a mix of tables and booths and a large bar fill the space so it doesn't feel impersonal. Punch Bowl Social's menu is as expansive as it is inventive. With a nod to the "social" in its name, the restaurant offers shareable plates and pitchers of punch.
PBS' signature punches are all offered in single pours. Don't miss the "You must bring us … A Shrubbery" (a concoction of sweet vodka, cardamom and watermelon with red wine floating on top), the jalapeño and cucumber limeade or maybe a spiked milkshake, which could serve as dessert.
Eats: Bar bites include cilantro-sauced chicken wings with a buttermilk dipping sauce, fried hominy and black eyed pea hummus served with kettle chips. Sandwich options include the Cubano with ham and cocoa-dusted pork and the Knockoff burger cooked to juicy perfection. Under gastro-diner plates, the chicken 'n waffles with smoked jalapeño, pecan maple syrup, strawberries and candied walnuts and the Idaho trout with black eyed pea succotash, pea shoots and roasted lemon salsa verde intrigued.
Notable: Games of all sorts -- Ping-Pong and baggo, bowling and Scrabble, Galaga and darts -- fill the lower and third floors of PBS. There are even private karaoke rooms if you're musically inclined. Food and drinks are available upstairs and downstairs, too. During the week, the wait for games was minimal.
The bottom line: If you leave hungry, thirsty or bored, it's all on you.
83 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake, (815) 893-4465, retrobistro.com/. Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 4:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday
Reviewed by Thomas Witom
The premise: Classic and contemporary French bistro fare in a quietly elegant setting with spot-on service is what diners will find at the second location of this family-owned restaurant.
Eats: Chef Chris Barth, who polished his culinary skills in Paris and ran the kitchen at the original Mount Prospect location, keeps things humming here. Appetizers include such favorites as duck liver mousse pate, tuna tartare deviled eggs, beef tenderloin carpaccio and the crowd-pleasing braised short rib wontons. Classic dishes such as a charcuterie and artisan cheese board, confit leg of duck and flamed steak au poivre join plates such as roasted chicken breast Dijonaisse and New York strip steak frites Parisian on the menu. The confit of duck salad -- a generous serving of falling-off-the-bone duck confit and six skewered shrimp intermingled with zucchini and red onions resting atop mixed greens -- shines, as did the potato pancake and the expertly cooked rainbow trout.
If Retro Bistro is offering the prix fixe three-course dinner, that may be the best bang for your buck.
As for dessert, the profiteroles au chocolat, creme brulee and flourless chocolate truffle cake all tempted.
The bottom line: Because Retro Bistro has many reasons to recommend it, reservations are advisable, especially on weekends.